Paralympics

Visually impaired runner Misato Michishita aims for Paralympic gold

Kyodo

After claiming her third straight World Para Athletics Championships marathon title in April and securing a spot at next summer’s Tokyo Games, visually impaired runner Misato Michishita said she plans to ride that momentum to the top of the Paralympic podium.

“I want to stand at the starting line with confidence like ‘I have worked so hard for this. I cannot lose,'” said Michishita, who holds the current T12 category world record of 2 hours, 56 minutes and 14 seconds.

The 42-year-old from Yamaguchi Prefecture brought home a silver medal from the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and has been ranked No. 1 in the world in her category for the last three years, setting the record T12 time in 2017.

Athletes compete in three visual impairment classes under World Para Athletics, rules based on severity — T11, T12 and T13, from highest to lowest. Michishita, who has hereditary corneal degeneration, competes in the T12 class in which athletes are assessed as having a visual field of less than five degrees.

After the onset of the condition in her right eye in the fourth grade, Michishita underwent an unsuccessful corneal transplant in junior high school and lost sight in the eye as a result. She obtained a culinary license after graduating from junior college, but gave up on her dream of being a chef when her left eye also became affected.

When she was 26, Michishita enrolled at a special school that provided help by teaching her how to live with the condition, and she took up running to lose weight, marking her first steps into the world of competitive sport.

Despite arriving late on the scene, she completed her first marathon by the age of 31, and eight years later she finished runner-up at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, the first games at which visually impaired women were able to compete in a marathon.

A diminutive athlete at just 1.4 meters tall, Michishita has a high-intensity cadence of around 240 steps per minute. She maintains a strict training regimen of her own design to allow her to hold her form and pace.

She pounds out around 700 kilometers per month — about the same as a Japanese university student training for the prestigious Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden road relay. Her hard work bore fruit in 2017 when she set the T12 world record at the Hofu Yomiuri Marathon.

For the past five years or so, Michishita has been working on her body and breathing through a strenuous yoga regime.

While she initially began the exercises to increase flexibility and strengthen her core, she discovered that through yoga’s focus on breathing she is able to calm herself, enabling her to lock in even during the stress of the second half of a race.

“I’ve been able to cool off and handle myself and my body,” she said.

But Michishita emphasizes that, for visually impaired runners, “the marathon is a team competition.” The 42.195-km distance would be unnavigable without a guide, a fellow runner who is tethered to the competitor via a rope for the length of the grueling race. Guides are so indispensable to the effort that they are awarded medals, too.

In 2016, Michishita joined Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Co., a powerhouse in corporate athletics. There she met 23-year-old Megumi Kawaguchi, an alumnus of the company’s women’s athletics club, who became Michishita’s “eyes” at work and during training sessions.

“Whether it’s a race or practice, she prepares more than I do,” Michishita said. “We’re comrades in arms.”

In addition to Kawaguchi, more than 10 others currently make up “Team Michishita,” a cadre of supporters that assist her in everything from regular training to international competitions.

“Of course I’m aiming for a gold medal,” Michishita said. “If the race unfolds like I picture it, when I reach the finish line, it will be the best having those companions that have supported me up to now waiting with a smile.”

Michishita said she plans to show her gratitude by breaking the tape at the finish line in Tokyo’s new National Stadium.

But despite winning her third straight World Para Athletics crown in April, Michishita remains unsatisfied with the result.

Finishing at the same place as the London Marathon, and where El Amin Chentouf of Morocco set a new T12 world record for men, Michishita finished 10 minutes off her personal best. She blamed a lack of precise weight control throughout the year and her “overdependence on others” for her relative underperformance.

Having learned that lesson, at the starting line in Tokyo 14 months from now, Michishita intends to push her way to the top without making any compromises.